Editor's note: In the September 2009 issue of Dressage Today, JJ Tate provides exercises to keep the horse's back loose and swinging. In the following videos, Tate trains Sacramento, a 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding owned by Katie Foster.
|*International trot is a beautiful cadenced swinging trot in which the horse has full articulation of his joints. He is uphill and in self-carriage, moving to his full capacity. This has nothing to do with speed but has positive energy. Every horse has his own version of an international trot. It's also the moment when the horse is totally through--mind body and spirit--and thinking with the rider. My mentor, Charles de Kunffy, uses this term a lot to describe when the horse employs and engages the hind legs and starts to float and carry himself up and forward.|
As you watch these videos, keep in mind the following: These exercises are helpful to get the horse between your legs, so be careful not to forget about your outside supporting leg. When you try them yourself, play with changing the tempo, as it is also so gymnasticizing. I like to use the collected trot for these exercises, unless I'm straightening my horse, checking the progress and finding his international trot*. Then, I send him forward again. These exercises are not about speed; they are about activity, control and weight loading.
Exercise 1: Square Pattern
This exercise should be done at the walk. Start by creating a 20-meter square in which you stay about 2 meters off the wall to give the horse's haunches room to move out. As you approach the corner, half halt the horse and then make a quarter of a turn on the forehand. Take care to be slightly heavier on the inside seat bone, stronger with your inside calf, supportive with your outside knee and creative with your outside rein. When I say be creative with the outside rein, I mean that it needs to be helping with the half halt and control of the shoulder but not so strong that it blocks the horse. Pay attention to the correct timing. When the inside hind leg is coming off the ground, that is the time to press with the leg.
Look for the horse's inside hind leg moving towards the outside hoof, forward and under his center of gravity. This exercise is about teaching the horse to yield away from your leg, which will give you control of his entire body. As he reacts to your calf pressure, he will rotate his ribcage, thus allowing the neck to lower and the hind leg to cross and open his opposite hip, as well as free up his outside shoulder.
Also be careful that the horse does not fall in after the quarter turn. I like to go straight so the horse feels free in his mind, as well as to refresh the strides. Try to keep the feeling that he stills yields in his body, even though he is not actually moving sideways.
Exercise 2: Trot Circle with Turn on the Forehand on the Centerline
This exercise is for checking the reaction to your leg, as well as suppling the ribcage and body. Horses have the tendency to get a little "stuck" on the leg and slowly start to go back to their natural crookedness, so we need to check in periodically to make sure the horse is available to stay in a good balance.
In this exercise, ride a 20-meter circle at trot. As you approach the centerline, ask for walk, and proceed to make a full turn on the forehand. Once complete, depart back into the trot and continue on the circle. For this exercise, take care that you first ride a very well balanced downward transition. Keeping the horse's hind legs engaged into the walk already starts the exercise in a good way. (I sometimes tell my students to ride the downward transitions with an upward intention. As a result, they don't allow the horse to fall on the forehand.) After you are in the walk, make a full turn on the forehand, away from your inside leg. Once you have completed the turn, make a crisp transition to trot, keeping the body suppleness you just achieved from the turn. Keep that inside leg under as you ask for the trot.
Take care in this exercise that the horse does not get slow off your leg, and focus that he crosses his inside hind leg over the outside leg. He should also keep a forward intention, so he doesn't get "stuck."